WINCHESTER — “My brothers, my sisters, my friends — it’s time.”
The Rev. Kevin Wilson of Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church of Winchester spoke with passion on Friday morning as he addressed about 500 people who gathered on the Loudoun Street Mall to protest police brutality.
It was the second time this week that people assembled downtown to peacefully protest the killing of George Floyd, who died while he was being restrained by Minneapolis police on May 25. The city’s first protest took place on Sunday evening, and a third was planned for Friday afternoon.
“We want to influence policy and change with our voices,” said Tina Stevens-Culbreath, whose nonprofit I’m Just Me Movement obtained permits allowing Friday’s protests to happen.
Prior to Friday morning’s march, protest organizers stood on the steps of the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum to welcome everyone and thank them for standing up for justice.
“This is not the revolution of our parents,” said the Rev. Gilbert M. Mack Jr. of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Winchester. “This revolution will be televised.”
The irony of a museum with a Confederate statue hosting a protest tied to the Black Lives Matter movement did not go unnoticed, nor did the placement of a memorial to Floyd at the base of the statue.
Stevens-Culbreath said Friday’s gathering was not about reopening old wounds, but rather healing the community and bringing everyone together. For that reason, the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum offered its space for the protest, and even provided 2,000 bottles of water for the people standing in the sun.
A profound sense of unity prevailed throughout the demonstration, which Winchester Police Chief John Piper said went off without a hitch. As protesters of all ethnic backgrounds marched through Winchester, they passed numerous cases of water that had been left out for them by downtown businesses and homeowners.
Walking north on Cameron Street, the procession paused in front of Rouss City Hall, where Mayor David Smith offered a few words of encouragement.
“Let’s stay peaceful,” said Smith, who is Winchester’s first black mayor. “God bless everyone.”
Floyd’s death has sparked protests around the world, some turning violent.
Friday’s first protest was a silent march, so the participants said nothing as they walked and waved signs. People who wanted to chant as they marched were encouraged to attend the afternoon gathering.
When the protesters finished marching Friday morning, they again assembled in front of the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum. Haley Arnold, an organizer of the event, asked everyone to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the same amount of time that Floyd was pinned to the ground. Just then, a church bell chimed 12 times to let everyone know it was noon, which was followed by a prolonged and intense silence.
Afterwards, Wilson asked everyone to reflect on the significance of kneeling for such an extended period of time.
“Imagine your brother with a knee on his neck for over eight minutes,” he said. “That’s a reason for rage.”
“This is a great America, and I’m part of that great America,” protester Wilhelmina Booker, of Winchester, said as she encouraged everyone to work together and move beyond centuries of racial prejudice. “We’ve been fighting this battle for 400 years. It takes all of us.”
“My daughter’s grandpa is a person of color,” added Shenoa Parker, of Winchester. “I had to explain to her why grandpa’s crying.”
“I encourage you to stay involved and vote,” protester John Copenhaver said as he stood near a voter registration table that had been set up in front of the museum.
Near the end of the morning protest, Stevens-Culbreath became overwhelmed with emotion and started sobbing. She was instantly surrounded by supporters of all races, comforting her and using their signs to shade her from the hot sun.
“We have to do it together,” Wilson told the crowd. “Whether you feel it right now or not, a shift is about to happen.”
On Friday evening, more than a dozen people spoke before about 500 people marched from the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum around downtown. Roughly 30 more spoke afterward. Speakers included clergy members as well as local, state and congressional representatives and community and area residents. They said Floyd’s death and the violent treatment of protesters by police at demonstrations nationwide illustrated the need for reform of police.
Danee Simmons, a black woman who recently earned her degree in criminal justice at Shenandoah University, challenged police to spend more interacting with the people they are sworn to protect.
“It’s harder to put your knee on somebody’s neck when you shook their hand,” she said. “Find out what you need to do to help them. Because until you do, the (expletive) is going to keep on happening.”
See Monday’s Winchester Star for more coverage of Friday evening’s protest.
Reporter Evan Goodenow contributed to this article.